Today, Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton (D-VA) led a bicameral letter urging the leadership of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to block any funding for the relocation of two Department of Agriculture (USDA) research agencies--the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA)--in the final Fiscal Year 2020 appropriations bills.
Notably, the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General announced this week that it is investigating whether the department has been suppressing and altering scientific reports related to climate change. The inquiry will also investigate changes in resources and staffing at the department. Staff levels at ERS and NIFA have dropped by approximately 75% since the relocation.
“Hundreds of dedicated federal workers have been caught in the crosshairs of this administration’s clear efforts to stifle science and objective research,” said Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton. “The forced relocation of ERS and NIFA has resulted in the loss of a generation of scientific expertise that will hurt our small farmers. The motivation behind this relocation is not to save costs or bring the agencies closer to stakeholders -- it is to bury scientific research that is inconvenient for the Trump administration’s political narratives. Congress will not stand idly by and allow the decimation of our federal workforce to go on unchecked.”
“Employees at ERS and NIFA joined together and formed a union to demand greater workplace rights and fight the gutting of their agencies through a hasty forced relocation,” said AFGE National President J. David Cox. “I applaud the members of Congress who have stood up for our federal employees and joined our union in fighting this administration’s attempt to silence the important scientific work these agencies are doing. I call on the leaders of the Appropriations Committees to include the House language to halt this move and reassert Congress’ important role in this process.”
“Although the Trump USDA has abandoned its own mission – and the farmers it serves – in order to push forward this ill-advised relocation, Congresswoman Wexton and dozens of House and Senate allies are rightly standing up for our farmers, evidence-based research, and hardworking employees. We stand firmly with them in unified and outright opposition to the relocation,” said Mike Lavender, Senior Manager of Government Affairs, Union of Concerned Scientists.
In June, the House passed several appropriations bills that would prevent the relocation of the ERS and NIFA outside of the National Capital Region. The Senate versions of these appropriations bills either provide funding for the relocation or do not include any language regarding ERS and NIFA. In August, the Inspector General of the Department of Agriculture concluded that the USDA did not obtain the legally required congressional budgetary approval for the move. Despite this, USDA moved forward in executing the move and gave employees just 33 days to decide to relocate to Kansas City with their agency or lose their jobs. As of the September 30 deadline, only 16 ERS employees and 45 NIFA employees agreed to the move. Staff departures due to the relocation are leaving critical scientific reports unpublished and stalling the release of millions of dollars in grant funding.
Congresswoman Wexton has been an outspoken critic of the relocation. In July, Wexton sent a letter to Secretary Perdue demanding answers on the refusal to grant personal extension requests for employees facing relocation and has urged the Department to utilize office space and telework opportunities for employees who continue working in the National Capital Region until appropriate space is available in Kansas City. In August, Wexton decried the Department for issuing termination letters to employees who had not received a response to their extension requests. Following reports that the Department was asking employees who had declined relocation to continue working longer in the National Capital Region, Wexton issued a statement noting that the relocation would severely disrupt ongoing scientific research and eradicate decades of valuable experience and institutional knowledge.
In addition to Rep. Wexton, the letter is also signed by Senators Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), Thomas R. Carper (D-DE), Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Mark R. Warner (D-VA), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), as well as Representatives Alma S. Adams (D-NC), Donald S. Beyer Jr. (D-VA), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Anthony Brown (D-MD), Salud O. Carbajal (D-CA), Gerald E. Connolly (D-VA), Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Marcia L. Fudge (D-OH), Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Jared Huffman (D-CA), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), James P. McGovern (D-MA), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Jimmy Panetta (D-CA), Jamie Raskin (D-MD), C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD), John Sarbanes (D-MD), David Scott (D-GA), Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-VA), Dina Titus (D-NV), David Trone (D-MD), and Peter Welch (D-VT).
The full text of the letter can be found below and a PDF copy is available here.
Dear Chairman Shelby, Vice Chairman Leahy, Chairwoman Lowey, Ranking Member Granger:
As the House and Senate negotiate the final Fiscal Year 2020 funding bill, we urge you to include provisions from the House-passed Agriculture and Financial Services bills which ensure that no funding may be used to relocate U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) research agencies out of the National Capital Region. Maintaining these provisions would ensure that the vital research from several USDA scientific agencies remains connected to the National Capital Region and that they are able to maintain mission continuity and delivery of mission-critical work.
In August 2018, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture announced the relocation of two national research agencies, the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), outside of the National Capital Region. Section 717(a) of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 prohibited the expenditure of funds for the relocation unless the Appropriations Committees were given written notice and provided approval to the Department. In an August 2019 report from the Inspector General of the Department of Agriculture, the Inspector General concluded that the USDA had not received Congressional approval as required under law for the move.
As a result, the USDA has moved forward with expediting the relocation of these agencies without approval from House and Senate appropriations committees, and employees of these agencies were given 33 days to decide whether they would accept relocation to a temporary location in Kansas City or lose their position. Although the USDA has granted requests for employees to telework on a case-by-case basis through the end of the year, as of September 30th just sixteen ERS employees and forty-five NIFA employees have relocated to Kansas City.
With only a fraction of reassigned employees opting to relocate, we are extremely concerned that moving forward with this relocation will increasingly jeopardize ERS and NIFA’s ability to continue their critical work as well as cause irreparable harm to the federal scientific workforce. USDA is now delaying the publication of dozens of research reports and, in some cases, will be forced to abandon them completely. There are also reports of NIFA funds remaining unobligated, despite research institutions being notified of their grant approvals. Other reports indicate universities, such as the 1890s Land-Grant Universities, are losing dedicated NIFA staff to assist in the management of federal programs that address current issues facing the agriculture industry as well as issues affecting land-grant universities. This will ultimately harm the American public, with the greatest impact being felt by the farming community.
The relocation is opposed by the National Farmers Union and the American Federation of Government Employees, as well as a broad coalition of stakeholders, including Union of Concerned Scientists, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Agricultural & Applied Economics Association, National Organic Farming Association, the American Statistical Association, and several land-grant universities.
Thank you for your consideration of this request.